Everyone by now has heard of Michael Sam. We know Sam’s height, weight, wine of choice, and life story. With the NFL draft approaching, we also know that he is expected to make History: that moment when an athlete tears down the wall between gayness and professional sports. Juliet Macur gives Sam a little coaching in a New York Times column: “There is no better moment than now to plow ahead and topple that wall with a bulldozer.”
What’s on the other side of the wall? For some, it’s a macho culture that expels gayness to its perimeter. Others take comfort in this image, ignoring the closeted stars who have already snuck past the watchtowers. In any case, the wall is ubiquitous, if starting to crumble. Soon, we hope, gay athletes will gain access to honest camaraderie and the veneration of fans.
As a gay man, I’ll certainly be happy when the wall comes tumbling down, but I’ll be even happier when this idea of an intrinsic division between gays and sports disappears as well. Just as football players learn to embrace their gay teammates, so must we, the gays and our allies, do the same for athletes.
We can start by respecting their work. In her Times piece, Macur alleges that the NFL’s “identity has been built on machismo and violence. It is a league rich with alpha males bursting with muscles who unapologetically smash into one another, to the delight of millions of fans.” Now, if I played professional football (laughably doubtful, but humor me), I might feel offended if someone reduced my career to a gladiatorial contest at best, a brutish grunting at worst. Well-intentioned pundits everywhere similarly confuse an entire sport with an aspect of its culture.
Machismo and violence form part of football, but so do strategy, statistics, teamwork, and resilience. Plus, plenty of gay Americans are avid fans of the game. Michael Sam, after all, counts among those who “smash” the competition. It seems naïve to equate his variety of manliness—physical grit—with the sort responsible for homophobia. While there remains obvious room for improvement in the NFL, the joy of watching football is more nuanced than the savagery of a Road Runner cartoon.
Football is not the only sport that has suffered from the jeers of gays and our allies. In a recent push for tolerance at Sochi, the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion (CIDI) released a luge-focused YouTube video that has collected about 5 million views. The PSA features two luge athletes in Lycra. They grind against one another in slow motion, back and forth, before finally launching their sled on its course. Cue the tagline: “The games have always been a little gay.”
When I first saw this video, I wasn’t sure whether gays or lugers should be more offended. It smacked of middle-school locker room humor, the very same kind that alienates LGBTQ athletes. Of course, the CIDI’s video isn’t trying to be offensive, only to reclaim a negative label. In the process, though, they unwittingly put lugers in the same position as yesterday’s outsiders. Before, the sexuality of gay men was the butt of jokes; now lugers can enjoy this honor.
And when gays aren’t making fun of sports, we’re turning athletes into mere sex objects. As diver Tom Daley knows well, our support for LGBTQ athletes is often laced with catcalls and dating advice. When the British diver announced his sexuality publicly, countless gays fawned over his abs (actually important for his, you know, job) while criticizing him for dating an older man. The gossip assured Daley that he was not part of our community in any meaningful sense—really only as a pretty bauble to behold from afar. You couldn’t blame him if he felt disrespected both as a person and a professional in the end.
Indeed, I often wonder what athletes must think when we ask them to keep open minds about welcoming gay people into athletics. Is this really fair when our minds are so closed regarding them? I’m no engineer, but it seems like if your goal is to knock down a wall, it’s counterproductive to reinforce it at the same time.